Happy Music with Jean-Jacques Perrey and Dana Countryman

Read about the 2006 Jean-Jacques Perrey and Dana Countryman collaboration on a CD project, The Happy Electropop Music Machine (Oglio, 2006), which gleefully returns to the kitschy electronic pop that typified the Moog-record craze in the late '60s and early '70s.
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(c) 2005 Mark Griswold

Known primarily in the U.S. for his legendary collaboration with Gershon Kingsley, Jean-Jacques Perrey has contributed heavily to the subconscious adoption of electronic music in popular culture. Through numerous television and film appearances—as well as commercials, children's shows, and parades at Disneyland—his unique tape-splice rhythms and quirky melodies have influenced generations.

In 2006 the 77-year-old Perrey, and Everett, Washington-based Dana Countryman collaborated on a new CD project, The Happy Electropop Music Machine (Oglio, 2006), which gleefully returns to the kitschy electronic pop that typified the Moog-record craze in the late '60s and early '70s. Countryman is an aficionado of obscure and unusual recordings, making a name for himself publishing the Cool and Strange Music magazine—just the man you'd want to see collaborating with Perrey. Countryman is also Perrey's biographer, and a book is promised for 2007.

I recently spoke with both men by phone about their new release—Countryman in October, 2006, and Perrey in November, 2006. Perrey's daughter and business manager, Patricia, helped with the occasional French-to-English translation. The duo had recently finished their west coast tour—Perrey's first ever tour in the U.S.—that stopped in Seattle, San Francisco, and Hollywood.

Did you enjoy your U.S. tour?
Jean-Jacques Perrey: It was very, very nice. As Dana says, it was a blast. [Laughs.]

How did your collaboration with Dana begin?
Before we went into his studio, we talked about the work that needed to be done using Skype. He would sometimes send me CDs to listen to. And I would play along and tell him "In this place, we should put this harmony," etcetera, etcetera.

I sent him MiniDiscs of myself working, because I have an electronic piano here that records 10 tracks. Of course it's not the same sound that is on the final CD, because it copies only the tracks from the keyboard. So Dana changed the orchestration using the proper instruments. By the time I went to his studio, it was almost already done. That's how we did The Happy Electropop Music Machine record. We are planning to make another CD in 2008.

Did you send him MIDI files as well?
No, because I'm not an expert with the Internet. I don't know how to do it. He sent me links, and I can listen to them. But I cannot create the links myself.

You added the Ondioline parts when you visited Dana?
Yes. He had an Ondioline in his studio, and I played it on the "Troll's Story" tracks.

Do you still own an Ondioline?
Yes, I have one in France, but it is very fragile.

Do you travel will it?
If I have to travel with it, I take off all the tubes and all the fragile things in the amplifier, and I put them in a flight case. And I take the head of the Ondioline with me on the plane, because it cannot travel in the baggage compartment.

Are the rhythmic samples on the new record from the original library you created in the '60s?
Yes, some of them. After the '60s, I created new ones.

So you have a stock library of all those sounds on your computer?
Yes, and Dana has it too. So when I visit him in Seattle, I don't have to bring the CDs with me.

How many sounds are in the library?
About 4,000. In the '60s, I created about 1,500 sounds that I used backwards, or double-speed, or half-speed. That's how I did the bumble bee sounds [from "Flight of the Bumble Bee" on Moog Indigo]. I changed each note by slowing it down a little bit to get the half tone, and then slowing it down again to get the next half tone. So I had a complete keyboard of bee sounds.

You had a tiny piece of tape for every note?
Exactly. When I happened to use, for instance, the "Flight of the Bumble Bee" sounds, I put something on the ceiling to hang them, note for note. And when I needed a C, or a D, or a D-sharp, I had the tape hanging from the ceiling, and I cut them to the proper length, because they had to be cut into mathematically exact lengths. If you don't do that, the rhythms slow down or speed up. So I had to be careful when I was sampling each sound.

How did you keep track of the tiny pieces of tape?
I sometimes put numbers on the tapes so I could recognize what sound it was. It was with a special pencil so as not to damage the tape.

So you had hundreds of tape pieces hanging from the ceiling, each with a number on it.
Yes, that's right. [Laughs.] The number was written on the reel of the tape.

Do you plan to release your sounds as a sample collection?
No. For the moment, I keep them to use on my own records. But maybe when I disappear, my daughter will put the samples on a CD and sell it.

How would you begin splicing various individual sounds into a rhythm?
It was very easy, because I have a simple policy for building loops. For instance, for the beginning I use a high sound. Then it must be a low sound next. The third one must be a medium sound. Then go back and go to high. So it is diversified: it is not boring.

So you always alternate between a high, a low, and a medium sound?
That's right, yes.

When you created these rhythms, did you draw them out on paper ahead of time, or did you work intuitively?
I did it in my mind: we cannot write this kind of sound. I chose whatever sound works best after the previous one. For instance, a soft sound, and then an attacked sound, then another attacked sound, and then a soft sound, almost schematically. But I never prepared the scheme in advance.

I've read that you classified your sounds by the type of attack.
That's what I called a brutal attack or a soft attack. Such as "tu" or "zzzziii." So to differentiate, the first one is brutal and the second one, in my French jargon, is soft. [Laughs.]

You recorded all these sounds yourself?

What equipment did you use?
I had a regular tape recorder, one that ran at 38 centimeters per second [15 inches per second (ips)], and another one that ran at 19 centimeters per second [7.5 ips]. So I could copy things at half-speed. But when you work with tape it's important that you respect the exact length of it in centimeters, or even millimeters. I preferred to use the speed of 38 centimeters per second.

What sort of sounds were you looking for as source material? I imagine you brought people in to play some of the sounds.
Yes. Harry Breuer did some of his sounds on tape. And I recorded outside—cars, the environment, cries of animals, and every kind of unexpected sound. And when I got back to the studio, I isolated them and made a master from them. Later, when I needed to, I re-recorded the sounds onto another tape. I did not use the master [for tapes splices], because if I used it, I wouldn't have any more master.

When you returned to France after your time in the U.S., you began creating music for animation. Were you inspired by earlier cartoon soundtracks?
No, I never copied or was inspired by anything else. I did what I thought was better. I work by instinct. I do everything by ear.

(c) 2006 Transmediale

There is a mention in the liner notes that you used "Moog-style analog synthesizers," by which you're referring to your Synthesizers.com instrument?
Dana Countryman: Yes, that's the big analog instrument and the main thing we used on the album. And thanks to Roger Arrick [of Synthesizers.com], this whole project came together, because it was a dream of mine to use analog synthesizers. Although we did use some digital instruments, as well, the focus of the album was to re-create that classic, analog Moog sound of the late '60s and early '70s.

What digital instruments did you use? Obviously, you used samplers and MIDI to do the short, loopy rhythm tracks based on Perrey's original recordings.
As a matter of fact we used Digital Performer on a G5 Mac in my studio. We also used Reason a fair amount, for its sampling capabilities. We took Jean-Jacques's classic sounds, bit by bit, sample by sample, and imported them onto keyboards. Then, he was able to plunk out the crazy sounds in real time. After that, we'd go back and clean it up, rhythmically, to keep it right on the beat.

A lot of those sounds were recorded as early as 1962, and I think they sound pretty good for weathering through the years. They were very well recorded back then, on good equipment, with good microphones.

What was the compositional process like between you two? Did one of you start with a rhythm track and the other do the melodies?
He would send me a MiniDisc with some unfinished tunes on them, and I would send either MP3s, CD-Rs, or MiniDiscs over to France, where he lives. But he'd work on my tunes and finish them up, and I'd work on his tunes. We would purposefully not finish our tunes: we would give the other person enough rope to collaborate without being in the same room. And then we'd send MP3s back and forth of how things were coming together and have consultations.

Also we used Skype a lot, talking through our computers. We both have high-speed Internet access with cable modems. Through the whole process, we were able to do a lot of the preproduction work, without being in the same studio or even on the same continent. It worked well.

I have never really collaborated with another person until this project—not to this extent. It worked well because he is a very generous person and I try to be as well, in terms of compromising and being open to new ideas.

So you created your parts to his low resolution version? Did he send you the CD-resolution so you could marry it up to your tracks?
The way it worked was that, once we got the songs composed, I did a rough track with a drummer and a few of the basic rhythm keyboard parts. Then he flew in and we spent 12-hour days for weeks on end working the real meat-and-potatoes, picking out all of the actual analog lead-synthesizer lines.

All the loop work was done together in the studio. Then he, unfortunately, had to go back to Europe, and I did the postproduction work, which was the mixing and adding some additional musicians. But it was always done under the consultation of both of us. We listened to the tracks live on Skype, through my little head-piece microphone, and then he might say "Hey, go back and get the one section" or "clean up that one note. It's off just a little bit." So we tried to do as much of it as we could live, together in the studio. But there were times when we did it long-distance as well.

And he doesn't have a studio, so I was left as the person to do the overall coordination of the sound.

How did he work on the pieces if he didn't have a studio?
He does have an electronic piano: a workstation, basically. So he sent me his tunes, sometimes with his rhythmic ideas, or just the melody and basic chords. And then I would do most of the arrangement. Although, he did a fair amount of that, too.

Once he got to my studio, we would go back and retool things. So there was a lot of compromise, but it was a true collaboration. He's not really an arranger. It's not generally what he does. He's more of an idea-man, a melodic person. Also, his crazy sense of humor is something that only he truly has.

You had first suggested a collaboration when you were in France, which led to this project. What tune was that?
The tune was "Chicken on the Rocks." Originally I was working on a solo album—a synthesizer project—and I was going to bring in various guest stars, and he was one of them. My family was taking a trip to Paris, and I knew Jean-Jacques already—we'd been friends for years—and I asked him if he would play on just one tune from my upcoming project. He said he'd be happy to do that, and we went into a friend's studio in Paris and recorded "Chicken on the Rocks."

And then about six months later, we talked about working on a whole CD together, but I just didn't see how we could do that without being in the same place at the same time. His health wasn't good enough at the time for him to travel. Well, he got his health stabilized enough with his doctor's help that he got the green light to come to America. At that point, we took the track we worked on together and made it the beginning of our entire CD project.

When he was in your studio, did he help program the analog synthesizer and come up with patches?
I think I did most of the patches, but we made notes of the some of the things that we liked. Certain kinds of patches we would go back to.

One of the things I should mention about the "Chicken on the Rocks" tune, is that we used the Ondioline as the predominant lead instrument. It's that rare, French vacuum-tube synthesizer.

Did you have one?
Yes. I went over to France in 2000 and brought one back with me. Unfortunately, it needed a heck of a lot of work to repair it, but it's in basic working condition. It's a vintage instrument, so it needs a lot of care and upkeep, kind of like a Model T

Is that the one that Perrey used when you did the gigs in the United States?
Yeah. Actually, we have two in my studio right now. One is his and one is mine. We used mine for the Seattle gig. But for the California gigs, we ended up taking his. His works a little better than mine. And he's got one stored away in France as well, so we have access to three Ondiolines right now.

How did you set up the live shows? He had the Ondioline onstage, but you were playing a Yamaha DX7, and you had the analog modular synth up there, as well.
I just used the DX7 for the MIDI capability. I had it running into either the big synthesizer that was behind me, or into just a sampler. I did use a couple of the basic sounds of the DX7. I like the organ sound. There are actually some great sounds on that machine.

I basically ripped my studio apart to do the Seattle gig, because I live near Seattle, up in Everett. In California, we found a nice guy on one of the synthesizer news groups, named Dave Peck, who was nice enough to lug his mostly-Synthesizers.com modular down to our show in San Francisco.

Then in Los Angeles, we played in Hollywood at the Knitting Factory. We hooked up with the Analogue Haven store in Pomona—super-nice guys—and they were kind enough to lend us three of their synthesizers to do the show in Hollywood. We only traveled with the Ondioline as luggage.

How did you do the backing tracks? Did you run them off a disc?
We used the tracks we had created for the CD, but we left off the lead lines, which we played live. So we accented what we had already pre-planned in the studio. And we were honest with the audience about the fact that we were basically playing along with our CD. But we did add some elements to it that you wouldn't find on the CD, which gave it a definite live feel.

You are also Jean-Jacques biographer?
I've done several articles on him for the magazine that I used to publish, which I sold about three years ago. As a matter of fact, in 2003, I traveled to his home in France and interviewed him for a week and the plan is that, starting in January [2007], I'm going to begin official work on his biography. I've been gathering interviews with various people like Dick Hyman, Angelo Badalamenti, Bob Moog (while he was still with us), and a lot of associates that he worked with, particularly back in the '60s, when he was doing the bulk of his pioneering pop-electronic work.

I'm hoping to have it done by April 2007. This book has been looming in the background for too long now, and I want to get it done. Especially while he's healthy and able to contribute to this thing.

Perrey has had a fascinating career, working with all kinds of people, like Leonard Bernstein, Salvador Dali, Les Paul, and Raymond Scott. He's rubbed shoulders with lots of incredibly interesting musicians and actors: Alfred Hitchcock, Walt Disney—it just goes on and on. And he's done a lot of interesting stuff, like contributing sound effects to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). I just found out he did some of the sound effects for Bewitched. He actually did a bunch of sound effects for ABC TV.

Does it cross any editorial or aesthetic lines to collaborate with your biographic subject?
Yeah, that's kind of strange. You know I hadn't anticipated that we were going to be doing anything together musically, when I originally started interviewing him. We did "Chicken on the Rocks" during the time that I was doing the interviews. I came home with something like 15 hours of interviews, which I hired a guy to transcribe and text for me when I got back. Then I started my solo CD project, and that led into us into doing this duo project.

Yeah, it is a little odd that I would be not only doing a CD with him but also writing his biography. But I feel like I'm probably the best qualified because I've been gathering facts on his life for years, and I did publish the magazine for seven years. So I'm excited about doing the book and I wanted to do it for a long time. And I don't want this information to get lost. He won't be with us forever, and I really want his life to be documented for future fans.

Can you tell me about your instrument? You say it's mostly Synthesizers.com modules: what other modules are in there?
Other than Synthesizers.com, I do have roughly about 25 percent [Synthesis Technologies] MOTM modules. I do have a few renegade modules: a couple from Doepfer, a couple from Analogue Systems in England, and I think I have one Blacet module as well.

Are they in the Frac Rack format, or did you have them put behind Synthesizers.com-style panels?
I'm currently putting some panels together myself—I actually did it with silkscreening. I'm holding a Doepfer joystick controller done onto a Synthesizers.com panel. I have nothing against doing a Frankensynth. The bottom line for me is really the sound. But at the same time, I've gone to this much trouble to put this huge synth together, and I'm getting into making it look uniform at the same time. It's a bit of a hodge-podge, but it's about 75 percent Synthesizers.com at this stage. I'm trying not to make it any taller than it is. I don't want it to take over the entire room.

What did you use for MIDI-to-CV conversion?
I used the Synthesizers.com MIDI module and the DX7 as a controller.

Did you sequence parts in Digital Performer and have them control the analog synth?
A fair amount. I would actually record in real time not only audio but also the MIDi signal simultaneously. And there were times when I would say "I don't really like that voice." But I had saved the MIDI data. Then Jean-Jacques and I would re-route the MIDI to the Synthesizers.com and then record a new voice back into Digital Performer.

Another thing that we did was make minute corrections in the MIDI data, sometimes to make it sound less perfect. We really wanted to retain the human quality even though we were using computer technology. One of the things I really don't care for is MIDI stuff that sounds robotic. So, sometimes we would go in and shift the beats around to make them less than perfect.

What does Perrey think about the sound of the latest analog synths?
Well it's second nature to him. He's got an amazing ability to know the exact kind of sound that's needed for a specific song. It's kind of like a little light bulb goes on over his head, and he would say "That's it!" Or he'd say "I want something that sounds like a blue color," or something that "sounds like a hippopotamus." And we would go in search of that kind of a sound. He has a lot of imagination.

And there would be times I would play something for him and go "What about this?" and he'd say "No, it's too harsh. It needs to be a little softer." So then he would experiment with the filtering. He's got an amazing ability for finding the perfect sound. We worked together well that way. There were times we would listen back to a track, and I would say "You know, there's just one note..." and he'd say "I heard that same note."

He doesn't have his own analog synths anymore?
Unfortunately, no he doesn't. He sold his big Moog that he carted back to France when he left the U.S. He's done a lot of recording work in France. A lot of the library music. I think there are seven or eight albums of background music, which are still being used currently—mostly in Europe. His royalty statements show all of the things he's done over the years, and most people weren't aware that it was him behind it. He has done a lot of commercials, and in fact a lot his music is still used for commercials.

Recently, one was used for the medicine Zelnorm, which is for female irritable bowel syndrome. They used this tune of his called "E.V.A." which has been used for so many commercials. And it's been sampled by all these hip-hop guys, like Ice-T and Dr. Dre. I can't tell you the products right now, but there are a couple of mainstream corporations that are negotiating for their commercials as well. Hopefully we'll get a couple of commercial offers from our crazy project.

Why did you choose to do a retro project?
We took this happy approach to the whole project because we both felt that electronic music has veered off into a little bit of a dark area, and it lost a little bit of its innocence. We talked about the way this project would be angled before we started the preproduction work of composing the tunes.

We both really wanted to do a lot of happy tunes, a lot of ragtime, putting humor back into the music. So that's something we both concentrated on. Not only when composing the tunes, but with the crazy sound effects. It's designed to make kids smile, and to ask people not to take themselves quite so seriously.

In the '60s, hearing these kinds of rhythm tracks, which required intensive splicing, was pretty mind blowing. But now it's somewhat trivial to do with a sampler. I'm wondering what effect that has on younger listeners who are already used to hearing sound effects side by side like that.
When he gives his lectures, he gives a demonstration on how he would splice tape, with the whole technique involved of using a razor blade. Then it's definitely mind blowing when you hear a song like "Gosssipo Perpetuo" or "Flight of the Bumble Bee," which was done with hundreds and hundreds of minute splices.

On the computer it's easier to do that, but at the same time it's also very time consuming in its own way. The way he did it, back in the day, was infinitely harder but he didn't have any choice. He just had to think of a way to pull it off with the limited equipment and facilities that he had.

The thing about Jean-Jacques is that he has an incredible amount of patience, and that's why you didn't hear other people of the day using this kind of technique, because it took so much patience that I don't think the average musician could tolerate it. And that's something that Jean-Jacques has is infinite patience for—spending hours and hours on one small section of music.

So in the duo he had with Gershon Kingsley, was tape splicing mostly Jean-Jacques's job? Or did they share that duty?
I think Jean-Jacques did all the splicing work himself. He had access to a studio, which he basically lived in. Gershon, from my understanding, was more of the arranger and would contract the musicians that they brought in, and he took care of the background stuff. Jean-Jacques was always the splicing man, using the samples and the crazy sound effects.

Not to put Gershon down because I think he had an important part. It was a very successful collaboration. They did a lot of commercials for a lot of products, and even now, their theme "Baroque Hoedown" is still being used in all the Disneylands. That is one of Perrey's most successful tunes, but it was a true collaboration that they actually co-composed in the studio. And there are no loops on the tune whatsoever, so that's kind of a different approach to electronic music than just the crazy sound-effects loops.

It's incredibly catchy and you have to give the Disneyland people credit for latching on to it, because I think it worked perfectly for the Main Street Electrical Parade. As a matter of fact, I just met Don Dorsey down in Hollywood. He's the guy that played the synthesizer in his home studio for the Electrical Parade. There is something like 30 or 40 variations on that theme. When they had Pete's Dragon, they did a Pete's Dragon version of it. But the glue that held it all together was the original "Baroque Hoedown" tune.

Jean-Jacques was the guest of honor at Disneyland in August, 2006, after we did the Hollywood show. He's done signings there where the fans come to meet him.

Are any of them outtakes from this project?
No, we actually used everything we worked on for this project. We had one tune that we were going to try and finish up—a piece with Angelo Badalamenti—but unfortunately we didn't have time. Maybe that will be on the next CD. But we didn't actually get to the recording stage on that.

We're basically doing stuff from scratch for this project. And it will be a little less happy. I think the next CD will be a little bit more on the mysterious side, with even a couple of spy themes. Just going in a slightly different direction. I feel we did the ragtime thing enough. Not that I don't like ragtime, but the next project will have a whole different approach to it. We've got about six tunes in the can right now.

How did you get Vinnie Bell and Dick Hyman on the CD?
I went to New Jersey and recorded Vinnie doing banjo parts in Tony Bennett's son's studio, which is called Bennett Studios, in Englewood, New Jersey.

Dick Hyman was a fan of my magazine—Cool and Strange Music—and he'd been a subscriber. We had actually done a piece on him. So I knew him through the magazine and felt comfortable to phone him up and ask him to play on this project. At that time, that was on a tune that Jean-Jacques and I had co-composed, but we didn't know it was going to be on our duo project. And Dick was nice enough to go into his home studio and lay down the synth part that he contributed to "Harry's Rag."

We also had Robert Drasnin, who is famous in the exotica music genre, play saxophone on a couple of tracks. In that case, I contracted a studio in LA and had Bob go in. Unfortunately, I couldn't be there, so the engineer recorded three different takes of each song, and then I went through the takes and edited the best pieces together.

Usually I was in the studio with the live musicians, whether they be guitarists, or drummers, or background singers. Jean-Jacques was there, too, when the background singers came in and he directed them himself in the studio.

He's truly a pioneer in electronic music, because as far as I know, he was the first one to make it popular—not just for the avant garde, which can be kind of unlistenable for the average person. A lot of the tunes from The In Sounds from Way Out were used as TV themes for children's shows and a lot of commercials. And it paved the way for a lot of other musicians who, on the coat tails of him and Wendy Carlos, produced the massive amount of Moog albums that came out in the late '60s.

But when Jean-Jacques did The In Sounds from Way Out, it was just the Ondioline, the Ondes Martenot, and a couple of other instruments. They were pretty esoteric: it was pre-Moog synthesizer. When you consider what he had to work with, it is pretty darned amazing.